Sally Louisa Tompkins
Shortly after the first battle of Manassas in July 1861, the city of Richmond was flooded with wounded Confederate soldiers. Existing hospitals were quickly filled to capacity, and the Confederate government appealed to the local population for assistance. Scores of individuals and organizations quickly responded, establishing numerous private hospitals for the relief of the wounded.
The most famous and efficient of these facilities was founded by Sally Louisa Tompkins in the home of Judge John Robertson on the corner of Main and Third Streets. The Robertson Hospital, as it was known, treated patients continuously throughout the war, discharging its last soldier on 13 June 1865. During its four-year existence, Robertson Hospital treated 1,333 wounded with only seventy-three deaths, the lowest mortality rate of any military hospital during the Civil War.
For her charitable efforts on behalf of the wounded, Tompkins received a commission as Captain in the Confederate Cavalry (unassigned) from President Jefferson Davis on 9 September 1861, thus becoming the only woman officer to serve in the Confederate army. Her story demonstrates the significant contributions of countless southern women who gave of their time, talent, and treasure from Fort Sumter to Appomattox.
"Captain Sally" was born at Poplar Grove in Mathews County, Virginia, on 9 November 1833, the youngest child of Colonel Christopher Tompkins and Maria Patterson Tompkins. Her family had boasted a proud military tradition since the Revolutionary War when Sally's grandfather, Colonel John Patterson, was commissioned by General Washington after the Battle of Monmouth. That young Sally Tompkins was keenly aware of this tradition is certain. When one of her brothers left to serve in Texas during the Mexican-American War, Sally, then only thirteen years old, wrote: "I hope you will be able to distinguish yourself in the battle and be a second George Washington and come home to receive congratulations from all your friends."
This family tradition of martial valor led Tompkins to believe fervently in the southern cause. After the Confederate victory at Mannassas, she wrote to her sister, "I felt that we could indeed say 'thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power; thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy'."
The Tompkins family also shared a deep commitment to the Episcopal Church. Sally's sister, Elizabeth, had led the effort to restore the dilapidated Christ Church in Mathews County, and Sally soon dedicated herself to charitable efforts of the local parish. She had a natural talent for nursing and could often be found tending the sick, both free and slave, on nearby plantations.
After her father's death, Tompkins and her mother sold the family estate and moved to Richmond, where they joined St. James Episcopal Church. Here they encountered the wealthy and socially prominent of the city, including Judge Robertson. When war broke out in 1861, Robertson moved his own family to the country for safety. Tompkins implored him to allow her to use the vacant home for a hospital, and he readily agreed.
Now Tompkins called upon the women of St. James and other well-heeled friends for support. She formed the "Ladies of the Roberston Hospital" and converted the private home into a twenty-two bed hospital, largely at her own expense. The hospital officially opened on 31 July 1861, and the first patient was admitted the next day.
Tompkins was fortunate to acquire the services of Dr. A. Y. P. Garnett, a well-known physician from Washington, D.C., as her chief surgeon. At least a half dozen other doctors worked under Garnett and Tompkins. The remainder of the hospital staff consisted of female volunteers, cooks, and slaves, including "Mammy" Phoebe, a long-time Tompkins bondservant who had raised Sally. In addition, several wounded soldiers treated at the hospital and unable to return to active duty stayed on to help.
The hospital was noted for its efficiency and especially its cleanliness. At a time when the cause of infection was not completely understood, Robertson Hospital enforced the highest level of sanitation possible. One account describes Tompkins as "obsessed" with cleanliness, an obsession which no doubt saved the lives of many patients.
Not all private hospitals were run so efficiently or honestly. Indeed, some of the private facilities had taken to charging exorbitant sums for their services. In some cases, patients were kept beyond the necessary time for full recovery, at the army's expense. These and other problems caused the Confederate government to close all private hospitals, including Roberston Hospital, on 5 September 1861.
According to contemporary accounts, Tompkins protested this decision, even as ambulances arrived to remove her patients. Accompanied by Judge William W. Camp, assistant secretary of the treasury, she made a personal appeal to President Davis. Tompkins showed her hospital register to the president and pointed out the high percentage of men returned to active duty after recovering from their wounds.
Davis relented and offered Tompkins a commission in the Confederate cavalry. In this way, Roberston Hospital would be under control of the army and eligible to receive medicine, bandages, and other supplies. Tompkins readily agreed but refused to accept any payment for her service. On her military commission, dated 9 September 1861, she wrote, "I accepted the above commission as Captain in the C.S.A. when it was offered. But, I would not allow my name to be placed upon the payroll of the army."
For the duration of the war, Tompkins labored to relieve the pain and suffering of the Confederate wounded. Carrying her Bible and medicine bag, she spent endless hours comforting and healing those in her care. Some called her "the little lady with the milk-white hands." Others saluted her as "dearest of captains." Mary Chesnut, a frequent visitor to the hospital wrote in her diary, "Our Florence Nightingale is Sally Tompkins." The more than 1,300 men fortunate to be sent to Robertson Hospital called her simply "Captain Sally."
After General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Tompkins remained in Richmond, devoting her time and what was left of her treasure to a variety of charitable and religious causes. She never married and eventually took up residence at the Richmond Home for Confederate Women in 1905, her personal wealth totally depleted. She died there on 25 July 1916, at the age of eighty-three.
Sally Tompkins was buried with full military honors at Christ Church in Mathews County, where an eight-foot monument now marks her final resting place. In the 1960s the Captain Sally Tompkins Memorial Window was officially commemorated in her honor at St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond. Both remain fitting tributes to Sally Tompkins, a true Angel of the Confederacy.
Sally Louisa Tompkins lived in Richmond, Virginia at the outbreak of the war, when Richmond was flooded with casualties that filled the understaffed hospitals beyond capacity. Sally, an influential woman in Richmond of no small reputation, persuaded a judge in Richmond to give up his house in the interest of the war. Sally turned it into a private hospital, staffing it with her friends and the slaves from her household. As the matriarchal head of care, Sally's perspective on cleanliness was different from that of other hospitals. While on the battlefield, the same surgery tools were used without washing between patients; Sally's techniques encouraged cleanliness as part of the treatment for the wounded. Sally's hospital gained a reputation for saving lives. In fact, more Confederate soldiers returned to the battlefield from Sally's hospital in Richmond than any other medical facility in the south. During the 45 months that Sally's hospital was in existence, countless soldiers were sent to her. Only 73 were lost to death. Confederacy President Jefferson Davis bestowed upon Sally the rank of Captain and made her hospital an official army-supported medical facility. It was renamed Robertson Hospital and was run by "Captain Tompkins" for the duration of the war.
With the Confederacy slow to work out a coordinated system of medical care for its wounded, people like Sally Tompkins were a Godsend. She was one of the first Southern women to support a hospital by renting a mansion in Richmond and turning it into a twenty-two-bed infirmary. When the medical service got organized, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered all private hospitals be closed. To allow an exception in Sally’s case, President Davis granted her a captain’s commission in the Confederate Army. She was the only woman to receive such a commission. Mary Chesnut mentioned visiting the soldiers at “Sallie’s” hospital on several occasions in 1861 in her diary. She even wrote a vignette about her and a nurse: Miss Sally Tompkins laughed at Mrs. Carter—whose face is so strikingly handsome the wounded men could not help looking at her, and one was not so bad off but he burst into flowery compliment. Mrs. Carter turned scarlet with surprise and indignation. Miss Sallie Tompkins said, “If you could only leave your beauty at the door and bring in your goodness and faculty.” Miss Tompkins financed and operated her hospital until June 1865. Only 73 of her 1,000 patients died, the lowest rate of any hospital during the war.